Documentary Photography Equipment

I am often asked about cameras and equipment by friends, clients, wedding guests, twitter followers...... the list goes on. Photography has always been popular and digital in particular has opened up the world of image-making up more widely than ever before. This post won't be relevant to everyone but I thought it might be useful to share what I use and why I use it. I'll not cover the how and when so much in this post - will save that for another time.

Weddings & Portrait Photography

The documentary or photojournalism style has quite specific needs with both the approach and equipment used. The type of work I produce is not reliant on external lighting, but uses fast, fixed lenses which allow manageable shutter speeds in low light conditions. By not relying on using flash, I can work unobtrusively in close proximity and without drawing attention to myself. It requires me to see, understand and use available light as much as possible in my exposures and composition.

Cameras

Currently, I use the exact same kit for both portraits and weddings. Whilst the different types of shoot can require slight changes in approach, on the whole my way of working is transferable. I work with two identical cameras setup in exactly the same way - the Nikon D700. Until a few weeks ago when the long-anticipated Nikon D800 was finally announced, the D700 was the only compact body, full-frame camera in the Nikon professional range. The D800 is only just now trickling into availability and whilst it is no doubt a camera at the cutting edge of technology, it is not something I intend to change to. The D700 is a workhorse: a high quality, dependable, rock-solid imaging machine. Aren't they pretty?

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The D700 has been available for almost 4 years. This is an incredibly long time in the fast-changing world of digital photography but it is testament to the quality of these cameras that they are still one of the finest digital SLRs available. Compact (compared to some), quick, accurate focussing and a great performer in low-light, the full-frame sensor of the D700 is capable of rendering beautiful images. Mine are setup identically and the following is a brief summary of how some of the key functions are configured:

  • Single-point autofocus - the D700 has 51 possible focus points but I limit this to 11 via the menu. However I generally only use the centre point which is most accurate in low light, and then recompose my scene as required.
  • Back-button focussing - As I use the focus and recompose method (mentioned above), I find it much better to separate the focus and shutter functions.
  • RAW file quality - it adds to the processing after a shoot but it ensures the best image quality in my workflow and style. Essential.

I like my exposures to be consistent and pure with no processing performed by the camera that might affect the image. I switch off any jiggery-pokery functions that try to adjust my shadow or highlights or otherwise affect the dynamics. Bottom line is, this in camera processing can produce unexpected results and I need to know that the camera records what I want it to. My overall aim is to produce results as close to possible to the classical look of film. Digital convenience with analogue warmth.

There's a whole host of other settings that are configured because they work for me. That might not mean they work for you, but if anyone is interested, I can post a detailed breakdown of camera setup. Let me know.

After experimenting and testing several different types of cameras straps - standard issue, Op-Tech, Sun-Snipers - I have settled on using Up-Straps on my cameras. They are simple, effective and just about perfect. As you can see, I only attach one side to the usual strap mounting eye; the other end is attached to a add-on plate underneath the camera. This causes the camera to hang in a less bulky way with the lens neatly pointing behind me. It also seems to make them easier to grab and swing up in use. Difficult to explain but try it - it works!

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The last tweaks to my D700s relate to the eyepiece. Now this is very much a case of personal taste and won't work for everyone so I'd suggest trying before buying if you can. Firstly, I use the DK-17m eyepiece magnifier. This does exactly what it says and makes the viewfinder look bigger. This is generally a good thing, but it does mean your eye has to travel around the frame a bit more to take it all in and see to the extremities. I don't mind that and the benefit of a bigger viewfinder outweighs the difference in use. However, they don't work well if you wear glasses.

Next up is the DK-19 rubber eyecup. I don't know why these aren't included as standard (actually I can guess). They are a great add-on, blocking out external light and making it easy to concentrate your eye on the scene in the viewfinder.

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Some people may have seen me at weddings last year with another camera hanging around my neck which is my Leica M6 - a manually focussed and operated, film rangefinder camera. It is a classic photojournalism camera: quiet as a mouse and built to last. The Leica looks completely different to the Nikons (it's a lot smaller, lighter and definitely better looking) and I only ever bring it out when there is a decent, workable amount of light. Film has a different feel to digital but is still capable of wonderful results and occassionally, some film based captures will work there way into client image selections. It also makes a good backup in the unlikely situation that both my D700s stopped working. The M6 is the nicest camera I have ever owned and I absolutely love using it.

Lenses

More important than having the latest and greatest camera, the lens is what adds the most to the visual makeup of an image. Whilst there are arguments for zooms vs. primes all over the internet, for me the prime is king, particularly the latest generation of fast f/1.4 primes such as I use. They are expensive (of course), but draw a stunning image.

The question I get asked most at weddings is why I work with two cameras. The reason is to have a lens of different focal length on each body. Usually a combination of the 24 and 50mm, or 35 and 85mm. Where my cameras are identical, I can quickly switch between them to grab a closeup without having to physically change lenses. Plus of course it means I have a backup body to use if one fails (this has happened).

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The 24 (above left) and 35 (above right) are part of Nikon's updated prime range. For several years, Nikon put their efforts into producing an excellent range of zooms, and with growing pressure from users for some decent fast primes, in 2010/11 they finally released these which are both fantastic. 24mm is wide and requires careful composition to get the best from it. The 35mm is my absolute favourite lens. I have shot portrait sessions using this lens alone and it is always my go-to lens for personal work. I could shoot an entire wedding using the 35mm - it is stunning.

A fair few people are flat out against using lenses from third-party manufacturers. It's a closed attitude that makes no sense to me. If that were the case, then we'd never get to use the wonderful (manual) lenses from the likes of Zeiss or Voigtlander.

The Sigma 50 and 85mm lenses (bottom centre and far right in the image below) have proven that auto-focussing lenses for DSLRs can be made to a superb standard by third-party manufacturers - hopefully something that might change more attitudes. Sigma threw out the old established rules of 50mm lens design with their f/1.4 and produced a lens which is more expensive, bigger and heavier than the Nikon equivalent. All of those things might sound like characteristics which would put me off but the simple fact is that it focusses much faster than the Nikon and renders a better look. The Sigma is sharp and has some of the best looking bokeh (out-of-focus areas) of any 50mm lens for SLR cameras.

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I sold my Nikon 50mm f/1.4 to replace it with the Sigma - it's that good. I then bought the 85mm Sigma on the strength of their 50 and it is also excellent. I've had some issues with mine (sticking aperture blades) which was an annoyance, but the look and handling of it are as good as the 50 and for that reason I have a place for it in my bag (for now at least).

Accessories

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Back row, left to right: video light / SB-800 / AA batteries, ThinkTank Cable Management 10, Skyport triggers, Leica M6, D700, D700. Front row, left to right: SB-800, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm.

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I use a Peli 1510 case to store and protect my gear. It is waterproof, it floats, and according to some reports could be driven over by a car. I've not tested these things but it's good to know that my equipment is well protected. Plus I can use it as a liferaft should the need arise. Good to know. I might test it sometime.

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The Nikon SB-800 flash is for the occasions when I need extra light and I have two of them. Unfortunately they have been discontinued for some time so I will keep running these until they fall apart (in progress). The SB-900 and now SB-910 that replaced the 800 are fiddly to use, heavy and make the camera unbalanced. I much prefer the 800 - it's a solid performer. They mainly get used for the first dance and evening party, usually on-camera (bounced).

Occasionally I will produce some creative portraits with off-camera flash when I may also use a Westcott Apollo 28" softbox. Whilst setup portraits are not always thought of as part of the documentary photography approach, they can be a beautiful image to add to a wedding collection, without taking much time away from the day. As with everything in my work, the objective is to make it as natural as possible. To trigger the flashes, I use either Elinchrom Skyports or a Nikon SU-800 wireless commander. I also keep a F&V HDV-Z96 video light in my bag which can be useful for dark occasions.

Memory cards I only ever buy from Sandisk or Lexar - whatever is the fastest available at the time. Never scrimp on cards. The only card failure I've ever had was from a cheaper brand (Transcend) and even they are supposed to be considered fairly good. Not for me - I'll stick with what I trust. I keep all my cards in a ThinkTank Pixel Pocket Rocket (great name) attached to my belt loop. Good to go.

Summary

So that's it - that's all my gear. The priorities are speed, simplicity and portability. With the exception of the lightstand and softbox all of the above gear fits into my Peli case and is easily transported. When I arrive at a wedding, I put the two lenses I am using first on the cameras, then the other two and a flash go into a cheap camera bag from eBay with some cleaning cloths and a dust blower.

This article is quite specific in that it details the equipment that I use. As mentioned before, what works for me, might not work for you. In future blog posts, I will cover in more detail how I use it which be relevant to more photographers regardless of the exact kit you use.

I'm open to suggestions for other future topics so if there's anything you'd like to see covered, let me know in the comments.